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What is an IP Address?

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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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The Internet is a worldwide network of unrelated computers that can only communicate successfully by agreeing to incorporate a set of rules or protocols. One of the most basic tenets of the Internet is the Internet Protocol (IP) address.

An IP address refers to a unique number assigned to each computer on the Internet. The IP number is called an "address" because it serves the same purpose as a home address -- it allows each machine on the Internet to be located by a numerical scheme. A domain name, such as www.wiseGEEK.com, also maps to a numerical IP address. In this case, it is 69.56.209.194.

Most people are familiar with the idea of an IP address through getting an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The ISP might offer either a dynamic or static address. A static one is a permanent address, while a dynamic address changes with each new Internet session. Every ISP has a unique range of available IP addresses.

Unless one arranges for a static IP address, a dynamic address is automatically assigned in the login process and will persist until the connection is intentionally ended or otherwise disabled. Upon logging in again, a new one is assigned. In each case, machines on the Internet will accept requests and return data to the current IP address of your machine. This IP number becomes part of the "return address" on the "envelope" as the browser requests Web pages, mail, and other online data.

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An IP address can be mapped back to a specific user by requesting the log records of the ISP. In the case of unlawful online behavior, for example, law enforcement might subpoena an ISP for the name, address, and other personal information of the customer that was assigned a specific IP address associated with the criminal activity in question. Some ISPs do not require a subpoena.

Websites typically track visitors by their IP addresses to see what pages are of interest. Identities can be linked to the address when registration and cookies come into play. A cookie can "tell the site" who the user is, despite a changing IP address. The site may have true or false information, depending on what the visitor has provided.

Though the Internet might feel anonymous, it is not an anonymous environment by default. The IP address is the first and last link to the end-user. In order to surf anonymously, many people choose to "hide" their address by using a website that substitutes its own IP address for the user's. Sites that provide anonymous surfing keep the user's address hidden from the Internet, while acting as an intermediary. Of course, the website providing this service still has a record of the end user's IP address.

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Discuss this Article

anon338022
Post 5

My i.p. traces back to a prison in the city I live closest to (about an hour away). Can anyone give me any insight on this? I remember looking up the location a year ago and it was the same.

anon206850
Post 3

Laws should be stringent. ISPs should be bind to provide all details of users if sought by law enforcement agencies at 4G Tech speed. Contents of chats, mails and voice clips of VOIP should be provided as quickly as possible.

afterall
Post 2

A lot of companies now offer ways to get the IP address of someone, either because you think they are scamming you or because you just want to know. I suppose in a way it's the new form if private investigation, though in my opinion it makes it no less creepy.

surfNturf
Post 1

I once had to trace an IP address because I had received a suspicious email about one of my bank accounts.

When I called my bank they were able to tell me the exact IP address and informed me that no one had tampered with my account.

I know that IP address lookup is done all of the time in law enforcement. They can trace where emails originated from and what computer was used because of the IP address.

This helps police officers nab internet criminals. I remember that a prominent weather forecaster in South Florida was caught engaging in inappropriate emails in an online sting with a supposed underage boy and it was caught by the

IP address. He is now in federal prison.

He recently said that his actions may not have been moral but they were not illegal. I just don’t understand how some predators can justify their behavior like that. When you are sent to federal prison you know that what you did was beyond being morally wrong.

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